Friday, December 09, 2016

BHA Habitat Watch Report-2016: Year of the Storms

If you are going to go anywhere, on foot, on mountain bike, or canoe, expect to do a lot of bushwhacking. Regardless of which side of Lake Superior you are on, this was the year the winds took down the trees.

I am the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Habitat Watch volunteer for the Superior National Forest and the Lake Superior watershed. Since the Lake Superior watershed also includes parts of Wisconsin, Michigan and the province of Ontario, and since I spend a fairly substantial amount of time on the Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin every year, realistically I consider myself the Habitat Watch person for the entire western end of the lake. Unfortunately, this year it doesn’t matter. The Kokapelli winds wreaked havoc with the entire region at one point or another, this past spring and summer.

As I explained to the MN- BHA board when I accepted this assignment, I am more of an angler than I am a hunter. (Although it could be argued that I am not much of an angler either.) Be that as it may, access affects all of us who use the backcountry, whether it’s for hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, any activity.

Although an earlier storm caused significant damage in the Isabella area of Superior National Forest, it paled in comparison to the devastation left in the wake of the storms of July 11th and 21st. From the eastern and of the Chippewa National Forest through Duluth and Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, and on the south shore, battering the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s western reaches so badly that the forest shutdown most of its northern areas. The damage on the Minnesota side resulted in numerous roads and trails being blocked by blowdown, as well as raised water levels in lakes, streams, rivers and even bogs.

I’m going to concentrate more on the damage done on the Chequamegon side, because it had a tremendous impact not only on the habitat, but also on the people of Douglas, Bayfield and Ashland Counties. Although a dozen or so campers were evacuated from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area following the July 21st storm, in Bayfield County three people died and 11 or injured during the passage of the two storms. It is estimated that 12 to 15 inches of rain fell on July 11th in about four hours time. This created tremendous pressure on the rivers and streams of the region, producing considerable erosion and in some cases re-creation of existing waterways. One trout fishing guide whom I am friends with, said that the Marengo River in Bayfield County, WI, (one of my most favorite trout streams) is now a totally different stream that it was on July 10th. Twenty Mile Creek, a class one trout stream, cut through over 30 feet of asphalt, gravel, and dirt on US Highway 63 north of Grand View, leaving only the bare concrete culvert structure, and taking the life of an elderly motorist and nearly killing the deputy sheriff who attempted to rescue her.

In addition to the major roadways near Grand View, Marengo and High Point, forest roads took the brunt of the storm’s fury. Even as I write this on December 5th, several Forest Roads on the Chequamegon remain closed, and will likely stay that way until early summer of 2017. The access road to the Beaver Lake Campground, a popular destination with bear and deer hunters was totally washed away, closing the campground for the season. Much of the forest remained closed and inaccessible until mid-November, and was actively patrolled by Forest Law Enforcement Officers, state Conservation Wardens and sheriff’s deputies who issued citations to those who entered the area without authorization. 

On the Superior National Forest, attempting to access a number of trout lakes and streams in the Isabella and Sawbill Trail areas also proved challenging, and at times prohibitive. At one lake I observed moose tracks that tried to enter the blowdown to get to the water a several different points before the animal broke through. Trying to access (politically incorrect) Redskin Lake on my Cogburn bike, a USFS fire lane was impossible. Pancore Lake was a in similar state.

The massive rainfall has produced another issue on standing water. Lakes, ponds and bogs are overflowing, making passage difficult for man and beast. Add to the high water levels, a very thriving beaver population and many roads, trails and game paths are under water.

The Forest Service has advised me that they are, and have been working on these issues since the storms (both Superior NF and Chequamegon NF) and hope to have things in better shape. Until the fire season required crews to go out west and then to the southeastern US, fire crews were dealing with the blowdown issue on roads and popular hiking trails, along with qualified volunteers.

I do receive SOPA (Schedule of Proposed Actions) and permit/variance reports for the Superior, Chequamegon-Nicolet and Chippewa National Forests, and similar information from the MN and WI Departments of Natural Resources. Other than the mining issue that we have all been dealing with, and the MN trout stream classification changes that I posted and sent out, there has not been much that would have a direct, or even indirect effect on fish and wildlife habitat. It should be noted that MN Trout Unlimited (of which I am also a member) is actively working with the DNR to preserve some of the streams scheduled to be delisted, citing the great success they have had with the Vermillion River in the Farmington area, at bringing back “dead” streams.

Going forward, we are going to have to remain vigilant. The new administration is going to bring about changes, both good and bad. It is too early and unfair to say that just because the Republicans are in control that the environment is going to go to hell in a hand-basket. There will be challenges, but the President-Elect has pledged to “Honor the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt”, and if he holds to that, it can’t be a bad thing. (TR is one of my heroes.)

Respectfully submitted,
MN-BHA Habitat Watch Volunteer

Isanti, MN